The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The symbolic potential of the veil in Britain

Last week, I suggested in these columns that Jack Straw’s discomfort in the presence of burqa’d women was a provincial’s reaction to difference. The burqa, I argued, was no more “a visible statement of separation” than a short skirt was a brazen invitation to familiarity. In the last seven days, the controversy over the veil has grown to realize its full symbolic potential. Tony Blair, after days of silence, endorsed the suspension of a primary-school teacher who insisted on wearing the veil at work. Going beyond his support for the local council action in this particular case, he echoed Straw’s position, saying the veil was “a mark of separation and that is why it makes other people from outside of the community feel uncomfortable”. The veil, thus, was read as the thin end of a separatist wedge (an idea developed by a Tory spokesman who saw in Muslim behaviour in Britain a tendency towards “voluntary apartheid”) and the debate about the veil became, for Blair, part of a debate about how Islam integrates into British society and the modern world.

One way of responding to Blair and Straw might be to point out that the number of veiled women in Britain was, by anecdotal estimates, less than two thousand. Since less than half a per cent of Muslim women in Britain wear the burqa, a sceptic might wonder if the practice was substantial enough to be freighted with the burden of Muslim separatism. But this would be an unsatisfactory response. Symbolic issues don’t need numbers. Only one Muslim killed Theo Van Gogh; that didn’t get in the way of that murder being seen as symbolic of the failure of European Muslims to understand Europe’s free speech traditions. Closer home, the destruction of the Babri Masjid by a mob of kar sevaks was seen by many Muslims and non-Muslims in India as a sign of ‘Hindu’ majoritarianism. If the British political class, across the party spectrum, chooses to see the veil as a symbol of integration or the lack of it, then the veil becomes a litmus test of Muslim citizenship.

As secular citizens of a republic that has been variously tested by diversity and has succeeded more often than it has failed, and as people who wish Britain well if only because so many Indians live there, the question Indians should ask is not, is it fair to use a handful of veiled women to question the Britishness of Britain’s Muslims, but the more pragmatic question: is it wise'

Symbolic thinking begets symbolic thinking; in contemporary Britain every day brings new opportunities for an anxious Muslim to join symbolic dots and come up with constellations of prejudice.

Among the public figures who have entered the ‘debate’ on Islam and British society we have a zealously Christian prime minister, Tony Blair, a perfervidly Catholic secretary of state for communities and local government and minister for women, Ruth Kelly, an Evangelical commander-in-chief, Sir Richard Dannatt, who believes that the British army is underpinned by Judaeo-Christian values and who is on record in a newspaper interview saying that the weakening of these values has allowed a predatory Islamist vision to take hold.

For a British Muslim tempted by symbolic thinking, the religious affiliations of these important public servants and the recent history of British policy might add up to a grim, Crusader narrative. A Muslim ignorant of the West’s historical achievement in separating God and Caesar might see zealotry where Blair only saw weapons of mass destruction, might misread his alliance with the American president as a compact with conservative evangelicalism across the Atlantic. He might make superficial connections between nations recently singled out by Anglo-American foreign policy — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Lebanon — such as their mainly Muslim populations and come to the unjustified conclusion that the state of which he was a subject was hostile to Muslims the world over.

Reading the interview granted to the Daily Mail by the commander-in-chief of the British army, this Muslim might begin to wonder about this British mainstream into which Kelly and Blair and Straw would have British Muslims flow. After the General had declared that “the Judaic-Christian tradition... underpins the British army”, he was asked about the implications of this statement for (British) Muslim soldiers and their allegiance. Given Sir Richard’s concern with spiritual values till that point in the interview, his reply to the question had an oddly materialist ring. He said: “These are British Muslims who are also British soldiers. If they are prepared to take the Queen’s shilling they will go wherever the mission requires them to go.” A British Muslim who didn’t make allowances for the forthright style of the four-square soldier, might read in this innocent remark the implication that Christian soldiers served to defend shared Judaic-Christian (sic) values while Muslim soldiers served because they were paid to do so.

He might reason that if British society was constituted by a Judaeo-Christian tradition, that if this tradition was increasingly seen as the defining characteristic of Britishness, his position in this society was likely to remain marginal because integration would require him to subordinate his Muslim self to an essence brewed from religious traditions not his own. He mightn’t, poor fellow, be sophisticated enough to recognize that the Judaeo-Christian tradition being the ground from which modern secular democracy had sprung, could no longer, despite its name, be considered denominational. It was now a necessary part of being modern. Unschooled in history, the common or garden variety of British Muslim might make the mistake of equating assertions about the Judaeo-Christian foundation of British society with the similar sounding assertion by Hindu majoritarians that Hindutva was the basis for Indian society and religious minorities in India needed to assimilate themselves to it.

He would be quite wrong, of course, but that’s the trouble with thinking by analogy and thinking symbolically: unlike things slip and slide into each other and create absurd misapprehensions. Like those poor Muslim women going about their business in burqas, terrifying, without meaning to, a Judaeo-Christian majority raised on images of masked hoodlums, bushwhackers in bandanas and hooded terrorists. Just as Bush and Blair might talk like muscular Christians, walk like muscular Christians and fight like muscular Christians while actually defending the free world’s secular way of life, in the same way, on a much humbler scale, the veiled Muslim woman might look like a shrouded menace to Judaeo-Christian sensibilities without being one. In keeping with a great British tradition, empiricism, Britain’s civil society might want to navigate by the evidence of its eyes rather than the bogeys in its head.

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